“This is their home and they belong here”

Photo Courtesy of Kayla O'Mahony

Courtney DuChene


     Students are speaking out and the administration is trying to set minds at ease in the wake of a Trump administration threat to rescind protections for transgender Americans by defining gender in terms of genitalia at birth. If the proposed definition goes through, it could lead to changes in federal policy that affect how trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals are recognized in schools, prisons, and homeless shelters, according to the “New York Times” article, “‘Transgender’ Could Be Defined Out of Existence Under Trump Administration.”

     In response to the potential change in federal policy, President Brock Blomberg issued a statement on October 29 affirming the college’s commitment to protecting the rights of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students.

     The statement was appreciated by both queer students and faculty.

     “I was elated. This was the first proactive affirmation of a group of students, faculty, and staff that I remember the college ever making,” Theatre professor Dr. Meghan Brodie ’00 said.

     “Statements like this are hugely important for students,” English professor Dr. Kara Mcshane said. “It’s a scary time for a lot of people, and statements of support from communities that we belong to matter quite a lot. I think they’re especially important in a largely residential community as a way of reaffirming to our students that this is their home and they belong here.”

     “I was happy to see that he had released a statement. I’d been really struggling with feeling like no one was talking about this issue, like no one really cared, so I was glad to see him raising awareness of the issue,” Vice President of the campus Gender and Sexuality Alliance Audrey Pitcher ’19 said.

     While Pitcher appreciated the statement, they also said they wished the school would have responded sooner.

     “It took more than a week from when news of the memo broke to when President Blomberg released the statement. To me that feels like there was too much political debate about whether or not a statement was warranted. I understand wanting to make sure he said the right things, but I also want an administration that speaks out immediately on behalf of students like me,” they said.

     Brodie noted that the statement was unexpected.

     “To be honest, I did not expect the College to respond to President Trump’s actions. In the past, we have not been particularly proactive in taking a stance to reassure our students unless we have to do so.  If President Trump were successful in accomplishing his aims, I would have expected the College to make a statement that the College would continue to recognize, respect, and welcome non-binary, trans, and gender non-conforming students, but I am so happy that the College didn’t wait until then, but reassured community members now that they are now and will always be recognized, respected, and welcomed,” she said.

     The President’s Office held discussions with its leadership team to decide what the statement should say and to discuss if they should send one out. The decision to send a statement was supported unanimously, according to President Blomberg.

     “Adhering to our institutional values is everyone’s responsibility here at Ursinus, but it begins with my office. As president, it is important to reiterate our commitment to supporting and protecting all members of our community,” Blomberg said.

     In addition to the statement sent out by the President’s Office, students are taking action to advocate for their rights both on campus and off. Pitcher created flyers to help students learn more about the potential changes to federal policy and how those changes would affect trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals, and distributed them to students, members of the administration, and board of trustee members at the Passport to Student Affairs event on Oct. 26. They also handed out the flyers in Lower Wismer last Monday with other members of the GSA board. GSA President Ace Melendez ’19 also made buttons with the trans flag and the pride flag to encourage students to vote.

     “I think in the wake of the news breaking I was feeling really powerless, especially since it didn’t seem like many people were talking about it. So I decided to channel that into making flyers that explained what was happening, why it mattered, and what people could do about it,” Pitcher said. “When I was invited to go to the SAO Passport event to talk about Greek organizations, I decided to bring some flyers with me. I didn’t actually realize any trustees were going to be there, but I’m really glad I had the chance to talk to them. I was surprised by the positive response I got. Several people thanked me for handing out the flyers and raising awareness. I was also able to have a really good conversation with Dean Nolan and some other members of the administration.”

      In addition to the statement, the administration plans to take other actions to show their support of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students. They have shared some of what they plan to do with students.

     “I know Dean Nolan is working on fixing issues related to changing people’s email addresses and usernames if they change their name while at Ursinus, and I think that’s awesome. I hope they’re able to make some progress on that soon,” Pitcher said.

      President Blomberg also shared some of the college’s plans.

     “The college is investing in spaces that are meant to intentionally welcome others, such as our Institute for Inclusion and Equity and the Rainbow Resource Room. We are also participating in programs and conversations such as Conversations About and Across Differences, and bringing outside speakers who can address and discuss these matters in a real and authentic way,” Blomberg said.

     Even though the administration plans to continue making changes to college procedures, spaces, and policies to show their support for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students, faculty and staff can always do more to show that they are advocates. McShane, Brodie and Pitcher all encouraged the administration to streamline the process of name-changing for students and the importance of making sure all buildings on campus have gender neutral bathrooms.

     “I’d definitely like to see more gender-neutral bathrooms, and not just single-stall ones. There’s quite a few non-binary students on campus, and it’s not out of the range of possibility that two enbies might need to use the same bathroom at the same time,” Pitcher said.

     “Like a lot of colleges, there are still opportunities for us to grow and get better at inclusion.  Two small things that would help a lot would be, one, making sure every building has a gender-neutral or all-gender restroom. There are more now than there were when I got to campus three and a bit years ago, which is great!  But Olin, for example, doesn’t have one, and there are a lot of classes held in that building,” McShane said.

     McShane encourages faculty to attend ally training and to be respectful of students who share personal information with them.

     “Attend ally training, even if you’ve been before!  It’s a helpful way to keep the issues affecting queer students on one’s mind, and sometimes best practices change,” McShane said. “The single most important thing for faculty members to do is listen.”